John Howard Griffin Took Race All the Way to the Finish

From The Washington Post:

Grif In the fall of 1959 an obscure white journalist and novelist named John Howard Griffin, a native of Texas, went to a dermatologist in New Orleans with what can only be called an astonishing request: He wanted “to become a Negro.” A man of conscience and religious conviction, he was deeply troubled by the racial situation in his native South. He was “haunted” by these questions: “If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make? What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?”

The dermatologist agreed to cooperate with Griffin's project, darkening his skin “with a medication taken orally, followed by exposure to ultraviolet rays.” Griffin, who had arranged with the editors of Sepia, the prominent black magazine, to write about his experiences, was in a hurry to get started and asked for “accelerated treatments,” which he soon supplemented with stain. He also shaved his head, “since I had no curl.” He did not look in the mirror until the process was complete, and when he did, he saw “the face and shoulders of a stranger — a fierce, bald, very dark Negro.” He was stunned:

“The transformation was total and shocking. I had expected to see myself disguised, but this was something else. I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship. . . . I looked into the mirror and saw reflected nothing of the white John Griffin's past. No, the reflections led back to Africa, back to the shanty and the ghetto, back to the fruitless struggles against the mark of blackness. . . . I had tampered with the mystery of existence and I had lost the sense of my own being. This is what devastated me. The Griffin that was had become invisible.”

Thus began Griffin's six-week odyssey through the South, a journey that took him from New Orleans to Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. In March of the next year Sepia published his story, and in 1961 an expanded version was published as a book, “Black Like Me.” The cumulative effect of the magazine story, the book and all the attendant publicity — Griffin was interviewed by the television journalists Dave Garroway and Mike Wallace and featured in Time magazine — was astonishing. The book became a bestseller. It awoke significant numbers of white Americans to truths about discrimination of which they had been unaware or had denied.

I was one of them. In 1961, I was 21 years old, newly graduated from Chapel Hill. I had written sympathetically about the emerging black protests for the student newspaper, but I was deeply ignorant about the truths of black life in America. That it took a white man to begin my awakening is, in hindsight, distressing, but Griffin's story managed to put me in a black man's shoes as nothing else had. (My first readings of James Baldwin's essays were still a couple of years in the future.) “Black Like Me” had a transforming effect on me, as apparently it did on innumerable others. That it has remained in print for more than four decades is testimony to its continuing influence, in great measure because it is taught in high schools and colleges.

Read now, for the first time since 1961, “Black Like Me” has lost surprisingly little of its power.

More here.

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